Written by Howard Chiang

A new era for trans history has arrived.  Like most historical fields that emerged at the turn of the twenty-first century, the study of trans experiences in the past has been pulled at all sides by the social and cultural history surrounding it.  Leslie Feinberg’s classic, Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman (1996), spoke to the growing institutionalisation of “transgender” as an umbrella term, bringing together different scholarly works on gender diversity.

The aim of the book was to show that people who crossed gender boundaries had always existed historically.  It responded to two urgent shortcomings in the field of queer history: the hegemonic concerns of lesbian and gay subjects (and historians) and the consequences of the absence of any serious interest in trans issues implicitly effecting the marginalisation of gender variant subjects in the queer historical experience.  By the early twenty-first century, historians such as Joanne Meyerowitz and Susan Stryker probed with greater nuance the interplay between the demand of trans people, popular culture, medical science, and the state.

Throughout  transsexual history, certain individuals have tended to usurp the limelight.  Of these,  Christine Jorgensen (1926-1989) has left the deepest impression.  In the early 1950s, Jorgensen travelled to Denmark to receive her sex-reassignment surgery.  Upon returning to the United States, she surrendered to her celebrity and became a glamourous star who promoted wider awareness of transsexuality.  She worked closely with her endocrinologist, Harry Benjamin (1885-1986),  who helped to bring the treatment of transsexual patients to the mainstream.  In 1966, Benjamin published the first comprehensive scholarly monograph on transsexuality, The Transsexual Phenomenon.  At a time when most medical experts were hostile to the request of transsexual patients, Benjamin stood out as a rare and important ally.

More recently, historians have begun to move away from the central narrative of transsexual history that revolved around the Jorgensen-Benjamin nexus.  Alison Oram’s Her Husband was a Woman!: Women’s Gender-Crossing Modern British Culture (2007) shows that the power of medical technology to physically transform sex was widely publicised in 1930s Britain.

Most of these surgeries were carried out by the endocrinologist-surgeon Lennox Ross Broster (1889-1965) at Charing Cross Hospital in London.  Of course, stories of sex change operations had circulated in Europe before that.  But it was Broster’s work that pushed for an understanding of sex mutability more firmly grounded in the endocrine sciences.  Afsaneh Najmabadi’s Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran (2013) has further shifted our attention away from the American narrative by scrutinising the way that religion, science, law, popular culture, and activism work in concert to enable trans people to turn Iran into a habitable Islamic state.

It is this growing scholarly dialogue about the global history of transsexuality that my book, After Eunuchs: Science, Medicine, and the Transformation of Sex in Modern China (2018), joins.  The book analyses the history of sex change in China from the demise of eunuchism in the late Qing era to the emergence of transsexuality in Cold War Taiwan.  One of the most surprising discoveries during this research was that the Taiwanese press sustained a long period of interest in the story of the “Christine of Free China,” Xie Jianshun, in the 1950s.  Born in Chaozhou, Canton on January 24, 1918, Xie arrived in Taiwan with the Nationalist Army in 1949.  When his intersex condition was confirmed in a hospital in Tainan, doctors initiated a series of “sex change” surgeries and claimed that they had successfully transformed Xie’s sex.  Alluding to Jorgensen, Xie’s nickname “Chinese Christine” reflected the influence of American culture on the Republic of China at the peak of the Cold War.  In the aftermath of the media sensationalism showered on Xie, Taiwanese journalists began to report with increasing intensity on stories of gender transgression, intersexuality, and other unusual medical conditions of the body.

There are two major contributions that emerge from my account of the Xie story.  First, in incorporating this episode of trans awareness into a larger narrative about China, I am not making a political statement about how Taiwan should be naturally understood as part of China.

In fact, quite the contrary.  At the end of the book, I conclude that Sinophone communities such as Taiwan have begun to replace earlier agents of colonial modernity (e.g., Japan) in mediating the transmission of sexual categorisations and identity politics into Chinese culture.  As such, the Sinophone recasting of transsexual Taiwan via the case of Xie is precisely intended to highlight the historically embedded and politically contested relationship between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China.  Relatedly, it’s meant to call attention to the potential ways of queering our writing of the “Chinese” or “Taiwanese” past.

Second, the story of Xie offers a cautionary tale about narrating the global history of transsexuality through a homogenising rhetoric that presumes the replication of the Jorgensen saga in different parts of the world.  What it shows instead is the malleable traction of the very concept of transsexuality itself.  It is a missed opportunity to simply dismiss the power of analogy between the American and the Chinese Christine.  The differences between Xie and Jorgensen—and other sex change stories worldwide—make it unambiguous. It’s time to put behind a rigid approach when conceptualising trans bodies, transness itself, and the way we historicise them in the twenty-first century.

Howard Chiang is Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, Davis.  He is the author of After Eunuchs: Science, Medicine, and the Transformation of Sex in Modern China (Columbia University Press, 2018) and editor of Sexuality in China: Histories of Power and Pleasure (University of Washington Press, 2018). Image Credit: CC by Carrie Kellenberger/Flickr.



  1. I like ‘the Sinophone recasting of transsexual Taiwan’. Supposedly transsexual Taiwan was cast Japanophone and Americanophone before and got liberated from ‘earlier agents of colonial modernity’ by recasting itself Sinophone. And such becoming a later agent of colonial modernity for China?

    What about asexual Taiwan, homosexual Taiwan or even heterosexual Taiwan? Did they get a Sinophone recasting, too? By the way, how do I have to picture a transsexual Taiwan? Probably it is not meant to have transformed its sex in the way a transsexual person might have done. Is it perhaps a reference to transsexual persons in Taiwan, such giving them a Taiwanese identity they lacked before? Or is it just a way ‘of queering our writing of the “Chinese” or “Taiwanese” past’?

    Still, I struggle to understand how ‘the Sinophone recasting of transsexual Taiwan’ could ‘highlight the historically embedded and politically contested relationship between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China’. Is this so because the PRC is not transsexual? Or is this so because the PRC is transsexual indeed but not recast Sinophone, yet?

    Greatly confused, I have to confess.

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